Low Carbon Electricity

Lynn and I both took an energy policy course at UNC in the early 1980s offered by the Physics Department.  Good class focusing on science and economics behind power generation.  Important factors included portability of energy (oil works great at this), cost to generate electricity (hydro-power is amazing – if you have the water flow and an area you can place a dam) and the death toll from power generation and transmission.

Death toll came from externalities (coal miner death, death from dams breaking, deaths from having high power transmission wires, etc….) and lots of other things.

The class was very data intensive with lots of references to science (loss due to transmission, horrible energy loss with storing power in batteries, capital costs to build power plants, and variable costs for fuel) and all sorts of other stuff.  Couple of interesting facts: dams break and cause a huge loss of life when it occurs (infrequently).  Nuke plants are horribly expensive to build, but have very low variable costs for fuel and even fuel disposal.  Hydro Plants had amazing advantages, and the US had pretty much dammed every body of water possible to do cost-effectively.  Coal was really nasty stuff that killed coal miners and people who breathed the downstream air.

One of the biggest issues I have with the eco-loons is their willingness to ignore science, ignore the costs to society for making electricity and logistics impossibly expensive, and ignoring science on the costs of power generation and transmission.  Nuke plants (if modernized) use a natural resource not useful for much else, have a very long life span, and if modern technology is used is not terribly expensive on a 50 year time horizon.  Very big upfront capital costs, very low variable costs, and the amount of waste is tiny compared to generating most every other form of power (including solar/wind which take huge amounts of metal, chemicals, etc…. which has all sorts of externalities).

The Wall St. Journal had an amazing story about the cost of renewables to generate power (referenced at the end of the post).  The cost of wind power in the Western Great Plains is cheaper than natural gas.  The cost of solar power is cheaper than natural gas plants in the Southwestern USA.  Renewables (solar and wind) ARE NOT COST EFFECTIVE compared to natural gas plants almost everywhere else in the USA.

The problem for renewables is the power grid.  The USA electrified on a State-by-State, and small group of states basis.  It is horribly expensive to run power lines – especially when there is a low population density.  To get the power grid paid for, States gave total (or almost total) monopoly power to a handful (or one) electric utility within a State.  The utility got to pass along the horribly high costs of running the transmission lines to the entire population of the State.  The Nations power grid is by and large a relic of the 1920s-1930s.  Think the network of roads prior to building the Interstate Highway system.

The USA could cost-effectively go to large scale renewable electricity production over a ten year period if the US Congress made interstate power transmission line permits a sole responsibility of the Federal Government (and Federal Courts) and allowed eminent domain to build the lines.  This would make it cost effective to generate inexpensive renewable power and use it to work for most of the US electric grid.  Best of all, private industry would build the lines, build the solar power facilities, and build the wind generation.  Let private industry work for the benefit of all.

Everything runs on Electricity.  Without cheap power the cost of living for everyone goes up.  Without cheap power manufacturing will not be done in the USA due to international competition.  Cheap electricity is a basic function of a modern economy.  If you don’t think so, give up all of your electrical devices and all of your air conditioning.  Give up your heat sources (other than wood or if you have your own solar plant).  Enjoy your life.

Everyone who knows me understands I’m not a fan of government in general or a powerful Federal Government specifically.  But having a modern electric grid in the USA is something only the Federal Government can do given the massive economic advantages of building wind facilities in the Western Midwest (think Oklahoma, half of Texas, Nebraska, Iowa) and solar power in the arid Southwest (Arizona, Eastern California, Nevada, New Mexico).  Individual States can block the building of intrastate power lines.

This is one of the few, big infrastructure problems that private industry could fix – if Congress allowed the Feds to use eminent domain to modernize the power grid.  Those who object to the use of their land can go to court (and lose) and under the US Constitution property owners who have part (or all) of their land seized get fair market compensation.  The eco-loons who hate all forms of modern economy and will oppose modernizing the electric grid – should be cut off completely from the power grid and be forced to live their luddite convictions.

See: https://www.wsj.com/articles/building-the-wind-turbines-was-easy-the-hard-part-was-plugging-them-in-11561176010?mod=hp_lead_pos5

(this is behind a pay wall).  The article is based on a forthcoming book SUPERPOWER: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy by Russell Gold.

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